Thursday, December 14, 2017

Christmas Ideas: Biography

The Diary of a Bookseller, Shaun Bythell - £14.99
Shaun Bythell owns The Bookshop, Wigtown - Scotland's largest second-hand bookshop. It contains 100,000 books, spread over a mile of shelving, with twisting corridors and roaring fires, and all set in a beautiful, rural town by the edge of the sea. A book-lover's paradise? Well, almost ...

In these wry and hilarious diaries, Shaun provides an inside look at the trials and tribulations of life in the book trade, from struggles with eccentric customers to wrangles with his own staff, who include the ski-suit-wearing, bin-foraging Nicky. He takes us with him on buying trips to old estates and auction houses, recommends books (both lost classics and new discoveries), introduces us to the thrill of the unexpected find, and evokes the rhythms and charms of small-town life, always with a sharp and sympathetic eye.

Adventures of a Young Naturalist, Sir David Attenborough - £25
In 1954, a young David Attenborough was offered the opportunity of a lifetime - to travel the world finding rare and elusive animals for London Zoo's collection, and to film the expeditions for the BBC for a new show called Zoo Quest.

This is the story of those voyages. Staying with local tribes while trekking in search of giant anteaters in Guyana, Komodo dragons in Indonesia and armadillos in Paraguay, he and the rest of the team battled with cannibal fish, aggressive tree porcupines and escape-artist wild pigs, as well as treacherous terrain and unpredictable weather, to record the incredible beauty and biodiversity of these regions. 

The methods may be outdated now, but the fascination and respect for the wildlife, the people and the environment - and the importance of protecting these wild places - is not.Written with Attenborough's trademark wit and charm, Adventures of a Young Naturalist is not just the story of a remarkable adventure, but of the man who made us fall in love with the natural world, and who is still doing so today.

Mr Lear : A Life of Art and Nonsense, Jenny Uglow - £25
Acclaimed historian Jenny Uglow brings us a fascinating and beautifully illustrated biography of Edward Lear, full of the colour of the age.  Edward Lear lived a vivid, fascinating, energetic life, but confessed, 'I hardly enjoy any one thing on earth while it is present.'  He was a man in a hurry, 'running about on railroads' from London to country estates and boarding steamships to Italy, Corfu, India and Palestine. He is still loved for his 'nonsenses', from startling, joyous limericks to great love songs like 'The Owl and the Pussy Cat' and 'The Dong with a Luminous Nose', and he is famous, too, for his brilliant natural history paintings, landscapes and travel writing. But although Lear belongs solidly in the age of Darwin and Dickens - he gave Queen Victoria drawing lessons, and his many friends included Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelite painters - his genius for the absurd and his dazzling word-play make him a very modern spirit.

He speaks to us today.  Lear was a man of great simplicity and charm: children adored him, yet his humour masked epilepsy, depression and loneliness. Jenny Uglow's beautifully illustrated biography, full of the colour of the age, brings us his swooping moods, passionate friendships and restless travels/ Above all it shows how this uniquely gifted man lived all his life on the boundaries of rules and structures, disciplines and desires - an exile of the heart.

Freud : The Making of An Illusion, Frederick Crews - £30
From the master of Freud debunkers, the book that definitively puts an end to the myth of psychoanalysis and its creator. Sigmund Freud is one of the most influential figures of western society. His ideas transformed the way that we think about our minds, our selves and even our thoughts.

But while he was undeniably a visionary thinker, Freud's legend was also the work of years of careful mythologizing, and a fierce refusal to accept criticism or scrutiny of his often unprincipled methods. In Freud: The Making of an Illusion, Frederick Crews dismantles Freud's totemic reputation brick by brick. Looking at recently revealed correspondence, he examines Freud's own personality, his selfishness, competitiveness and willingness to cut corners and exploit weaknesses to get his own way.

He explores Freud's whole-hearted embracing of cocaine as a therapeutic tool, and the role it played in his own career. And he interrogates Freud's intellectual legacy, exposing how many of his ideas and conclusions were purely speculative, or taken wholesale from others. As acidic as it is authoritative, this critique of the man behind the legend is compulsory reading for anyone interested in Freudianism.

Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker, A.N. Wilson - £25
Charles Darwin: The man who discovered evolution? The man who killed off God? Or a flawed man of his age, part genius, part ruthless careerist who would not acknowledge his debts to other thinkers?  In this bold new life - the first single volume biography in twenty-five years - A. N. Wilson, the acclaimed author of The Victorians and God's Funeral, goes in search of the celebrated but contradictory figure Charles Darwin.  Darwin was described by his friend and champion, Thomas Huxley, as a 'symbol'.

But what did he symbolize? In Wilson's portrait, both sympathetic and critical, Darwin was two men. On the one hand, he was a naturalist of genius, a patient and precise collector and curator who greatly expanded the possibilities of taxonomy and geology. On the other hand, Darwin, a seemingly diffident man who appeared gentle and even lazy, hid a burning ambition to be a universal genius.

He longed to have a theory which explained everything.  But was Darwin's 1859 master work, On the Origin of Species, really what it seemed, a work about natural history? Or was it in fact a consolation myth for the Victorian middle classes, reassuring them that the selfishness and indifference to the poor were part of nature's grand plan? Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker is a radical reappraisal of one of the great Victorians, a book which isn't afraid to challenge the Darwinian orthodoxy while bringing us closer to the man, his revolutionary idea and the wider Victorian age.

Endurance : A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery, Scott Kelly - £20
From the Nasa astronaut who spent a record-breaking year aboard the International Space Station - what it's like out there and what it's like now, back here. Enter Scott Kelly's fascinating world and dare to think of your own a little differently. The veteran of four space flights and the American record holder for most consecutive days spent in space, Scott Kelly has experienced things very few of us ever have and very few of us ever will.

Kelly's humanity, compassion, humour, and passion shine as he describes navigating the extreme challenge of long-term spaceflight, both existential and banal. He touches on what's happened to his body, the sadness of being isolated from everyone he loves; the pressures of constant close cohabitation; the catastrophic risks of colliding with space junk, and the still more haunting threat of being absent should tragedy strike at home. From a natural storyteller Endurance is one of the finest examples the triumph of the human imagination, the strength of the human will, and the boundless wonder of the galaxy.

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